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Grad school for the PGRE challenged: How to make my research count?

  1. Sep 27, 2013 #1
    Hi guys and gals, first post here, but I've lurked here before but just now registering and posting

    I'm getting ready to apply for my graduate schools. I'm not sure what exactly I'm seeking, so I want to provide a little background.

    I've always been a tinkerer, ever since I was young I've been building and disassembling things, asking how things work, and trying to figure out why they don't. I also love science, I've got a bookish, artistic side (I'm an amateur metal artist/sculptor as well) but when I tried to go to school for journalism I realized that the sciences were what I really missed. As a result, I switched to the physics program at my state university. My goal is to work in a field where I can create, both knowledge and physically. Because of this I'm looking at either robotics engineering (a hobby of mine since high school), or experimental physics. I love the challenge of trying to build a machine to test an event or law, and part of this is because our school's facilities really are not that great, and I've seen first hand what an understanding of experimental physics can do as far as being able to build your own equipment. A large amount of our equipment was built by several of our professors.

    Because of my split between robotics and physics, I'm majoring in physics with a focus on computational physics, with dual minors In mathematics and computer science (although the courses I'm taking are actually computer engineering, there is no computer engineering minor). My GPA is hanging onto 3.5 by the skin of it's teeth and this semester is not looking so hot.

    I think I performed decently on the general GRE, with a Verbal score of 159 on the new scale and a Quantitative score of 161 on the new scale. I'm not terribly surprised by this because as I said, I'm a lover of both science and the arts, and have been between them my whole life, never entirely focusing on one. Ok, I'm a nerd. A well rounded nerd who doesn't stand out in any particular way, but a nerd.

    Now, maybe because our department is not the most organized, or maybe because I'm just not as good at this stuff as I thought I was, but when I took the practice physics GRE I scored abysmally. My friend and I were a point off, landing at the 8th and 7th percentile respectively. This was in June, and despite working and my dabbling in the arts I've been studying hard and regularly. I just took another practice exam yesterday with my friend to prepare for the physics GRE tomorrow and I scored a still depressing 16th percentile.

    So, with less than a year left, and not being able to count on my physics GRE scores, how do I make my research count for it? I've been working on many projects here, in both departments. Including an experiment where we've been attempting the synthesis of quantum dots, but we haven't yielded any new data, just attempted replication of other documented, though recent, experiments. In the computer science department I received 40 hours of paid assistant-ship this summer to work on a device to measure the activity of fruit flies for the biology department. Other projects I've worked on or will be working on are a laser harp, a tree climbing robot for the environmental science department, and possibly a project involving Mathematica and quantum operators.

    Sorry for the long winded post but my question is this: How do I make these unpublished research projects count to help make up for what I'm unfortunately expecting to be a "not-so-good" PGRE. If something miraculous happens with the QD synthesis experiment, it could possibly be a poster presentation at a local conference, but that's about all I can see.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2013 #2

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    Your first job is to figure out where you stand.

    If you're at a Public Ivy like (e.g.) Michigan, your 3.5 will count for a lot; the committee can conclude that you surely must have learned something to pass all those finals. If you're at a branch campus with a small or nonexistent grad program and that sends very few students to grad school, the committee is more likely to accept the PGRE as the best measure of your preparedness and chalk the 3.5 up to grade inflation.

    It doesn't matter how good your research is if you can't pass your qualifying exam. This is a dealbreaker. Grades and PGRE are considered to be a predictor of this. You simply have to get those up: if you finish with a 3.4 after this semester and a PGRE in the 15% percentile, your glowing letters of recommendation might not even get read, I'm afraid.
  4. Sep 28, 2013 #3
    This is a great point. I couldn't pass my qualifying exam, I got in the sixty percentile on the PGRE when I was applying. I think you have a lot of work to do, not just to get in to grad school but to pass the exams in grad school.
  5. Sep 28, 2013 #4
    I was afraid of that. I'm slowly realizing that the school I'm at, despite professors' best efforts, hasn't really prepared me for this. I'm not at a well known school, it's just one of the schools in the PA state higher education school system. And on top of that I suppose I've dropped the ball as far as preparing myself, since I' clearly wasn't ready despite what I thought was my best effort. The atomic physics questions, many of the quantum mechanics questions and even some of the more difficult optics questions left me clueless, as I'd either never seen them before or had completely forgotten about them to the point that I didn't know what the question was asking.

    I took the exam today, and only managed to answer a little more than 50 of the questions. It's completely alien to any testing I've done in college, all our exams have been based on a small number of difficult questions, been open ended and many even allowed a formula sheet. I did well because problem solving difficult questions is my strong suit, where as remembering formulas, and system specific derivations is not. My other problem is that deep down I'm still the kid who took alg. 1 three times in high school. I can get the entire problem right, but make a simple oversight and lose the score. I've been trying to adapt but I guess it's been too little too late. Short of miracles, what is my next course of action?
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2013
  6. Sep 28, 2013 #5

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    Have you talked to your advisor about your plans for grad school? Does he know your situation with the practice PGREs?
  7. Sep 28, 2013 #6
    I have, he told me to just keep at it, but to try not to worry since the GRE is only part of the puzzle. I can't tell if that's meant to be consolation or advice though.

    I'm also looking at robotics engineering or electrical engineering schools, but as selective as especially robotics schools tend to be, could I even stand out there? The PGRE shouldn't hinder me on that front, but are my regular stats (GRE + GPA) anywhere near good enough? I'm not talking Ivy league, my dreams of CMU died in 10th grade, but I just mean a competent, small program where I can learn and be involved with projects and research.
  8. Sep 29, 2013 #7
    I've heard it from the mouth of an adviser that above a 700, your PGRE becomes less and less relevant and your other characteristics acquire heavier importance. "A 990 could be obtained with rote memorization". After having studied quite a bit for the PGRE myself, on the more recent exams, I'm inclined to agree.

    You have a chance of retaking it again in about 3 weeks. It is likely that what you've been studying is largely irrelevant for the PGRE. Not knowing functional forms of empirical laws and a slew of complete equations cold will kill you on this test. All the problem solving skills you acquire in proper full-blown courses go out the window on this exam, in my experience. Patiently setting up boundary conditions for a viscous flow problem or getting all the matrix elements right for magnetic interaction Hamiltonian in a spin 3/2 multi-body QM problem? Forget about that, it's all about speed and knowing facts cold, ie: figuring out relativistic velocity additions or Lorentz factors quickly, quick geometric reasoning for electro/magnetostatics, knowing most basic and not so basic fundamental constants to do a quick Fermi estimation problem without having to flip back to the table of constants, etc. Your description of your exams sounds a lot like mine: 1 or 2 hard, long problems that account for most of the grade and occasionally a derivation or two. We have to retrain ourselves against this for the PGRE, I'm afraid.

    Considering the more recent exams like the last released sample and the last 2 exams I took (one last year and one yesterday) they're become much more conceptual and a lot less computational, and a good portion of the questions are IMO dead giveaways, especially the atomic and quantum physics questions which this time around didn't even involve knowing any equations by heart (unlike the usual question of the dependence of H-like atomic energy levels on the reduced mass, etc). If you're scoring that low, you have a lot more (proper) studying to do.
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2013
  9. Sep 29, 2013 #8


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    Also some programs don't require the physics GRE for admission, or as a qualifier.

    However your general GRE needs to be high, and so do your grades.

    If your goal is a PhD you may want to work on an MS first and improve your knowledge and your grades. You will have to pay for this, but it can be done at a state school. Just concentrate on your goals, and try to limit the "I want to work on a lot of different things".
  10. Sep 29, 2013 #9
    Dont many engineering programs not require the PGRE?

    It sounds like what you enjoy has a lot of crossover with engineering. Why dont you do an engineering program and get a more marketable degree for obtaining employment?
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2013
  11. Sep 29, 2013 #10
    I can't swing grad school in cash or debt, I'm already 60k under from my undergrad, another 100k on top of that would just be ridiculous.

    I always thought my grades and knowledge were decent, being in the upper 3rd of the class here (although being that our graduating class is around 10 people for the physics department, that's not saying much).

    Well, I guess I've got things to do, since I'm not sure what I'd do with a B.S. in physics, so I've got to make this jump.

    I guess I'll kill it 'til it's dead, or it kills me first. With my shield or on it!
  12. Oct 28, 2013 #11
    Well, I got a 490, even worse than I was expecting. It's looking like, since few programs do spring admits, I'm going to be spending an extra year in undergrad and retaking the exam in April. This is really depressing but... I guess there's not much else that can be done.
  13. Oct 28, 2013 #12


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    There are a few grad programs that don't require submitting PGRE scores due to poor correlation between PGRE scores and completion of a PhD program. Clemson University is one of them.
  14. Oct 28, 2013 #13
    You won't get into MIT, but you can probably get in somewhere reasonable in the top 100. Talk to a lot of admissions people and see what they think of your profile. Many of the institutions in the top 50 don't have enough graduate students and with a 3.4/3.5 I find it improbable that you won't get in anywhere.

    Many of the top 50 schools I've heard about aren't really that awful anyway (far from it), and should be good enough for your purposes. In fact I'm currently going to a school which seems to hit somewhere in the top 50, and they let in a selection of students who have dubious prospects of success at the qualifier. Some of them fail out, and others figure out their issues and go on to get a Phd.
  15. Oct 28, 2013 #14
    Also, consider applying to your current institution. I know mine bends over backwards to give its graduates a chance (in part out of sympathy but also out of a need for graduate student manpower) if they can't get in elsewhere. The practice is frowned upon from what I know but better to be in grad school than not.

    Now, my school has (from what I can tell) a fairly stringent qualification process and a lot of the guys who slide in eventually are shown the door, so even if you slip in somewhere, you'll need to confront your underlying issues which have given you such a mediocre profile.
  16. Oct 28, 2013 #15
    My school doesn't have a graduate physics department. In fact our overall physics department is only around a hundred students, with only about 10 graduating per year (the rest switch majors, or transfer out to an accredited engineering school). I'm one of two students planning on going to graduate school for physics, and he is in about the same boat as I am. I do still plan on applying places but am not holding my breath, and am planning as if I will be taking the GRE again in the spring
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